top 10 2009 corner office articles

January 19, 2010

in communication,culture,talent

the corner office, a regular column on leadership in the new york times, is typically the first article i flip to on a sunday morning. and i often bookmark favorites the old-fashioned way—cut out and file.

reading this week’s interview (cristóbal conde, ceo of sungard, below), i thought of others i’ve savored over the past year. here are my 2009 favorites that are still available online. if you have a favorite as well, add it to the list.

1. will wright, video game designer

wright explores the relationship between personal passion, daunting tasks, and failure.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “so, that’s part of how i filter prospective employees—when they are faced with the impossible, do they get excited or do they get depressed?”

2. brian dunn, chief executive, best buy

dunn is out there, virtually and IRL, listening for hiccups and insights from employees, customers, and competitors.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “i think the ceo job is designed to insulate people from things that really happen. i want to make sure that i’m sort of out there in the white noise and the messiness of it all. if you don’t, you run the risk of becoming insulated and ineffective.”
  • “people don’t line up outside my door to tell me how they’ve screwed something up. you know, you sort of get the ‘yep, everything’s going terrific and it’s a-o.k.'”

3. alan r. mulally, president and chief executive of ford motor company

mulally understands story-telling. he drives his vision by uniting employees behind the universal.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “is the airplane really about an airplane or is it about getting people together around the world so they can find out how more alike they are than different? and is a car about just a driving experience or is it about safe and efficient transportation, and your family, and freedom? and so the higher the calling, the higher the compelling vision that you can articulate, then the more it pulls everybody in.”

4. carol bartz, ceo of yahoo

bartz is a little more introspective than some of the other interviewees. she discusses missteps and reflects on working for her early-career ceo self (she wouldn’t have wanted to).

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “you need to build your career not as a ladder, but as a pyramid. you need to have a base of experience because it’s a much more stable structure. and so that involves taking lateral moves. and it involves getting out of your comfort zone.”
  • “everybody has politics. and so be an expert at it. figure out how to influence people to get things done, as opposed to running and ratting on them.”

5. joseph j plumeri, chairman and ceo of willis group holdings

plumeri delves into the knock-on effect of small things: mood, hand-written notes, and mistaken identities.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “and i think anybody in a leadership position, where people depend upon you, you simply can’t have that one off day that’s bad, because you’re going to affect a lot of people.”
  • “what i’m trying to say is that little things are big deals. they are a major ingredient in building a great company.”

6. nancy mckinstry, ceo and chairwoman of the executive board, wolters kluwer

mckinstry speaks to my biases, so of course i like her. she discusses how understanding culture and backgrounds informs how you inspire employees globally.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “so what i’ve learned in holland is that if you invest a lot of time upfront to explain what you’re trying to accomplish, get people’s feedback, then when they do say yes, the time to implementation is really fast. but if you don’t invest that time up front, you’re going to get such resistance that you’ll never get to the end.”
  • “if you know how to solve problems, you have a shot of performing at a higher level. you obviously need some subject-matter expertise, but i’d rather have someone who’s really strong on problem-solving, and maybe a little less on the subject-matter expertise, because we can teach them that.”

7. jeffrey swartz,  president and ceo of the timberland company

from solving process breakdowns to interviews and new-employee meetings, swartz digs into the personal to frame information, motivate, and create bonds.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “people resist the unseen. they fear what they don’t know, what they can’t put their hands on. so i learned from that experience that i’ve got to help people see what they can’t see.”

8. gordon m. bethune, former chief executive, continental airlines

straight-talk and common sense. that’s what bethune delivers. he discusses management style and communication, and the common denominator is always that simple things are easy to do—and even easier to forget.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “i was a mechanic in the navy. and mechanics in the navy are like mechanics in airlines. you may have more stripes than i do, but you don’t know how to fix the airplane. you want me to fix it? you know how much faster i could fix the airplane when i wanted to, than when i didn’t want to?”
  • “you don’t lie to your own doctor. you don’t lie to your own attorney, and you don’t lie to your employees. and if you never lie, then when it hits the fan, and somebody says you’re wrong — you can say, “no, i’m not,” and they’ll believe you.”

9. tony hsieh, chief executive,

this has been a wildly popular article, as with all things zappos. what comes through loud and clear is that employees set and maintain the culture, and there’s trust in their doing so.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “i basically sent an e-mail out to the entire company, asking them what our values should be, and got a whole bunch of different responses. the initial list was actually 37 long, and then we ended up condensing and combining them and went back and forth and came up with our list of 10.”
  • “one of our teams—the outdoor team in our merchandising department — decided to decorate one of the conference rooms, and transform it so that when you’re inside, you feel like you’re in a log cabin. they spent the weekend tearing up the floors and putting in a fake fire and all this stuff. it was pretty cool…the next thing we knew, within two or three months, all 20 or so conference rooms were all decorated by different teams.”

10. cristóbal conde, ceo of sungard

conde highlights what many of us on twitter already know: by sharing information publicly and without regard to rank or celebrity, good ideas and remarkable thought leaders rise to the top.

a sample of what you’ll find:

  • “the answer is to allow employees to develop a name for themselves that is irrespective of their organizational ranking or where they sit in the org chart. by creating an atmosphere of collaboration, the people who are consistently right get a huge following, and their work product is talked about by people they’ve never met. it’s fascinating.”
  • “if you start micromanaging people, then the very best ones leave. if the very best people leave, then the people you’ve got left actually require more micromanagement.”

as you read these, a common theme of passion and empowerment appears. when you unleash people with a yen to do great things, they typically do.


Leave a Comment

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Wally Bock January 19, 2010 at 4:12 pm

What a great idea. I love this column in the Times, but it’s even better when you pick the best and lay them out side by side. Great job!


fran January 19, 2010 at 10:52 pm

wally, thanks. i love the column, too.



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